A group of students from Columbia University’s Sustainable Development Workshop spent the spring semester looking into possible water conservation efforts for Rockland County, and on Wednesday the group gave a presentation of their findings to the Rockland County Legislature's Environmental Committee.
The group looked into seven potential water saving programs and the cost effectiveness of those programs. They found that five are cost effective: single family high efficiency washer rebate program, single family high efficiency toilet rebate program, commercial high efficiency toilet rebate program, commercial pre-rinse spray valve replacement and single family water-waste ordinance.
The students in the group were Clare Buck, Alex Mendez, Nikki Morgan, Aaron Simon, Melissa von Mayrhauser, Caitlin Watterson and Shelly Xu. They worked in consultation with Dan Miller, of the Rockland County Department of Health, and Stuart Braman, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The course was a capstone for the group, the last one they have to take before graduating from the Sustainable Development program.
The co-managers of the group were von Mayrhauser and Mendez. At the beginning of the semester, the group was asked to look into the question “How can the legislature effectively implement non-emergency, outdoor water ordinances that will conserve water,” von Mayrhauser said. The group looked into 11 case studies around the country to see what they did.
During the presentation, there was a lot of discussion about ordinances. In other counties, ordinances included restrictions for watering lawns either during specific hours or specific days. Buck said Rockland could see “small but meaningful water savings” through water waste ordinances.
“We project this would be a beneficial program to address water conservation issues in Rockland County if used as a part of a larger conservation program,” she said.
Mendez said there are four lessons the group learned for Rockland through their semester of work. The lessons come in the basic areas of relationships, enforcement, learning from the past and multifaceted ordinances.
With relationships, Mendez said it’s important for various parts of governments to work together.
“We’ve seen that the different levels of government or community or even industry are really critical for many of the communities that dealt with these ordinances, and leveraging these relationships between those different parts is really critical to ensuring longterm success,” he said.
With enforcement, he said different communities have approached it in varying ways, from possible fines to education. Of the four case studies the group went over during the presentation, only Cary had a budget for educating the public. He added others used incentive-based programs, such as rate structures.
Mendez said that while it’s important to learn from the past, the county can’t ignore the present or future.
“What you’re seeing is that communities such as Rockland, that has a large amount of emergency requirements and restrictions, this might be helpful in thinking about how you can translate those into non-emergency measures,” he said. “And the other key point here is that it’s not only learning from past, but it’s monitoring the present and preparing for the future. So you need to establish ordinances that can evolve over time. These can’t be static.”
Like Buck, Mendez also said that ordinances simply won’t help Rockland conserve enough water.
“What we’ve seen is that no community has a single ordinance that attacks a single thing. Often they’re a broad sweep of ordinances that focus on reducing outdoor demand in a more holistic way,” he said. “They differ their applicabilities, some focus on new construction, some focus on existing. Some focus on commercial and some focus on residential, but what’s critical is establishing a family of regulations that can really approach your problem and attack demand broad and more complete.”
Legislator Alden Wolfe, chair of the Environmental Committee, said the full report will be up on the legislature site at some point this week. He was very pleased with the work of the student group.
“I’m blown away,” he said. “It takes a lot for me to not have something to say, but the way that you guys dissected a very complicated issue and distilled it down the way you did, I’m very, very impressed.”
He added that he plans on going over the report in even more detail so he can bring some ideas from it to his colleagues.
“We’ve got some drafting to do,” he said.